The man behind the lens

Film will document Burk Uzzle’s legacy

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Burk Uzzle welcomed a visitor to his cavernous photography studio in downtown Wilson and quickly ushered the 28-year-old over to the background he had set up.

“We have a six-minute sweet spot when the light is perfect,” Uzzle said, watching the sunlight streaming in.

He positioned Jerome Fairfax in just the right place, took several test shots and observed the lighting on his subject. He also noticed the young man’s hair.

“Can your hair be in the front?” he asked. Fairfax didn’t hesitate to move his long braids while Uzzle stood back and watched.

“I appreciate you wearing those red pants,” he said, with a familiar Burk Uzzle chuckle.

David Raymond watched while Jethro Waters filmed the interaction between the legendary photographer and his subject.

Raymond and Waters were in Wilson last week filming portions of a feature-length documentary about Uzzle. The filming started in September and should wrap up in April.

The film is about Uzzle’s photography legacy, including iconic images at Woodstock, the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s funeral and unrest in both Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s also about his philosophy and how he has experienced so much of modern history first-person, through his camera lens.

But as the project progressed, the film’s focus expanded to include Uzzle’s current work. "Burk's work is very sociopolitical, and he is just as relevant at 78 as he's ever been," Waters said.

For several years now, Uzzle has focused his attention on the African-American population in eastern North Carolina. His goal is to tell their stories and encourage acceptance and understanding. Many of his subjects come from hard pasts, including gang involvement and street violence. Uzzle focuses on how they have turned their lives around.

In early February, the Greenville Museum of Art premiered Uzzle’s exhibit “Perceptions + Recognitions: African-Americans of Eastern North Carolina.” Around 700 people were at the opening, including Raymond and Waters, who were there filming.

Raymond said Uzzle’s current project is powerful and significant for the African-American community.

“It’s become really important to us, too,” he said.

“Burk has been so consistent for the last 60 years for really photographing and depicting, in a humanistic way, the African-American community.”

‘f11 and Be There”

When Raymond approached Uzzle about doing the film, he was honored.

“It means they signified that my life has been worthwhile,” Uzzle said.

For Uzzle, the film is more important than many things in his professional life, including working with Life magazine, Magnum Photos and his many gallery shows.

“It’s an amazing moment for me,” he said.

He’s also pleased that the film is including his current work. He said he is committed to this project.

“I’m a 78-year-old, skinny white man taking pictures of gang members in Wilson, North Carolina. And I love these people. This is very good.

“Who else is doing this?” he asked.

Uzzle has been told that his current body of work won’t sell in New York, as his other work has. And galleries have not been eager to show it.

“We’re hoping to help change that,” Waters said.

The two filmmakers plan to submit their work to both national and international film festivals.

“We will target the best festivals,” Raymond said.

The key is to connect with the right people, and they are already doing that.

The film, named “f11 and Be There,” is self-financed, Raymond said, but an investor has voiced an interest.

“This is a labor of love,” he said. “It’s about telling a story and telling it right and telling it truthfully.”

The film’s title comes from a conversation Uzzle had with Waters.

f/11 refers to a camera’s aperture setting, or f-stop.

“‘f/11 and be there’ was a photography mantra or saying that was used a lot by Burk and his contemporaries at Life, Magnum, and from I gather, used by a lot of other photographers and photojournalists,” Waters said.

Although he had never heard the expression before, Waters said it made a lot of sense to him.

“It’s the perfect philosophical and technical statement for capturing a remarkable photograph,” he said. “f/11 means that you need to know your camera, what settings are right for the moment, having your subject in focus, all these things are essential at the outset, and then ‘be there’ is a statement about being in the right place at the right time, both compositionally and in space and time.“For instance, if Burk hadn’t been living ‘f/11 and be there’ at Woodstock, and so many countless other places, those photos would not have become the icons that they are.”

Waters said it’s Uzzle’s technical mastery in the moment and his artistry and philosophy that make his photos both incredible and timeless.

“‘f/11 and be there’ applies just as much to my work as director and cinematographer on this film as it does to taking a photograph. So it comes full circle in that way.”

See the Trailer

Not all of the film involves local personalities.

Uzzle and Waters will be taking an 11-day road trip out west soon, looking for landscapes and people to photograph. The filmmakers also plan to go to New York to do interviews with those who are familiar with Uzzle’s work.

Raymond and Waters have been going through Uzzle’s archives as well and driving from their homes in the Asheville area to film photo shoots, such as the one last week with Fairfax.

Raymond interviewed Fairfax while Waters filmed last week. He asked Fairfax about his past, and they talked about how the gang he was a part of is now doing community service projects and working with youth to put them on the right path. They also talked about what he is studying in college and his plans to open a business.

“But there is still prejudice,” Fairfax said. “People are just racist. They don’t give you no chance,” he said.

Interviews play a big role in ‘f11 and Be There” and can be seen in the trailer for the film at f11andbethere.com. The trailer includes vivid images recorded while Uzzle was shooting portraits in his Wilson studio.

David Raymond is a filmmaker, artist, art collector and curator. He is currently co-directing and producing two other documentaries in Vietnam. Waters is a cinematographer, director and photographer as well as writer and editor. His work is often published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, NPR, Spin, Billboard and Consequence of Sound.

lisa@wilsontimes.com | 265-7810